Friday, August 11, 2017

Google dissent, nature, nurture, excommunication, and more votes for Trump in 2020

When I was still in college way back in the early 1960s, I saw James Baldwin on a TV talk show roll his large bug eyes upwards, wave his hands, and sigh a remarkable observation.



I don't remember his exact words, but their meaning was more or less as follows: 
Sometimes it's very tiresome to be a Negro because you have to deal with the same issues over and over again, issues that should have been settled a long, long time ago.
As a young Black male I knew that tiresome was how you felt when you were in a good mood; anger was your more likely reaction when you weren't. In another context Baldwin's comments about the greater frequency of this other reaction were unforgettable:
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."
Fortunately, Baldwin was in a good mood that night, so he patiently answered all of the inept questions posed by his well-intentioned White interviewer. Baldwin's words rattled me, not just because I thought they were true, but because somehow I knew that his sad observation would probably remain true for a very long time. And as I grew older, I was also saddened to realize that other disadvantaged groups -- women, Hispanics, gays, Native Americans, physically challenged, etc, etc, etc -- also oscillated between these same poles of tiresome and rage for similar reasons.

A. Political context -- Alienated White male voters
Of all of the many causes that contributed to Mr. Trump's catastrophic victory in 2016, the one that I find most inexcusable was the arrogance of liberals, like myself, who made little or no effort to engage Trump's growing band of supporters. The polls assured us that we outnumbered them, so all we had to do was get out our voters and claim victory on Election Day. We did not try to broaden our base by recruiting Trump's supporters to our perspectives because we "knew" that they were too "ignorant" and/or too "racist".

But all of Mr. Trump's supporters were not ignorant racists.Yes, there were lots of certifiable thugs in his merry band of "Make-America-Greaters". However the polls also told us that many of his supporters were White working class males who had voted not once, but twice for the first African American candidate for president. They voted for Barack Obama because he promised to bring the "change we need". But when the 2016 election cycle rolled around, their lives were still in a downward spiral. So they voted for the other party ... not a racist vote, just a rational response to Hillary Clinton's smug promise (threat?) that the next four years would be more of the same.

Of course we never had any chance to reach the bikers, KKK white sheets, and other thugs; but enough of the non-racist, White males who had voted for President Obama in 2008 and again 2012 might have been persuaded to vote against Mr. Trump in 2016, enough to have made the difference in a close election had we tried to reach them. We should have, but we didn't. We just settled into the self-segregated corners of our echo chambers ... and lost. 

Now comes Google's stupefyingly unwise decision to summarily dismiss a young White male tech because he had the temerity to suggest that the lines of Google's failing diversity efforts should have been drawn through different points along the nature vs. nurture spectrum. Google's decision to excommunicate this "heretic" leaves me shuddering with concern that we liberals will not only alienate White working class males in 2020; we may also alienate White middle class males.

B. Nature vs. Nurture
Black Americans have been the focus of nature vs. nurture debates for centuries. White slave owners and the White ministers of their White churches sometimes justified slavery by noting the poor conditions under which the owners had forced their Black slaves to live. Then, with unabashed irony, they cited the slaves' poverty and illiteracy as proof that Black slaves were inherently inferior to their White owners. 

In more modern times, religious debates have given way to statistical jousts wherein the naturalists trot out their stats on one side of the field, and the nurturers trot out their stats on the other. Although the playing fields shift from one skill set to another, the goals are always the same. The naturalists infer that Blacks are innately inferior, then the nurturers counter with more extensive data that rejects Black inequality. 

The Google memo's challenge to Black equality is indirect because the ostensible subject of the memo is female inferiority -- but its indirection makes it no less tiresome and/or enraging.
  • The author assumed that Google's efforts in the last few years to hire more female engineers (and more Black and Hispanic engineers) have been credible ... a highly dubious assumption.
  • The author was aware that Google's efforts to hire more female engineers (and more Black and Hispanic engineers) have been an epic fail.
  • The author was aware of Google's "explanation" for its continued failure ==> the underrepresentation of female candidates (and Black and Hispanic candidates) in Google's "pipelines", i.e., the computer science and related programs within the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities.
  • So the author hypothesized that there might be psychological differences between men and women based on underlying biological differences that accounted for the underrepresentation of female engineers. He ignored the possibility that any observed psychological differences might have been nurtured and possibly erasable, rather than biologically innate.
  • Then he looked for and found a few psychological differences reported in refereed journals that he believed (but did not prove) would explain the limited appeal of software engineering to women. He did not cite comparable psychological limits for Blacks and Hispanics, but he didn't need to. Having heard the first verse of his song, we all know what the second and third verses would have sounded like.
Had the author of the Google memo been one of my students when I was still a member of the faculty, I would have growled, given his paper a "C" grade for his efforts, pointed out some of his logical errors, and encouraged him to revise it. I would not have recommended that he be expelled. 

C. Fodder for the alt-right 
When a student submits a paper, that's a teachable moment. In this case, the author's spontaneous publication of his note on Google's internal system provided Google's management with an excellent opportunity to enlighten the author and any other engineers who agreed with the author's conclusions. 

As I understood the author's paper, it was a deeply flawed but honest attempt by an inquiring mind to explain why Google has been failing so miserably in its efforts to develop a more diverse technical staff. Indeed, it seemed like the determined effort of a loyal employee to explain his employer's failure to achieve an important goal by suggesting that the employer's goal was inherently unachievable.  It was a well-intended, but methodologically naive effort that confused correlation with causation. It was not a "screed" or the "rant" of a sexist or a racist as it has been frequently described in the tech media. So why did Google fire him??? 

When young Black males have been shot by White cops in urban communities all over the nation, the cops have not been summarily dismissed. They have been temporarily reassigned or put on administrative leave pending the outcomes of the investigations of their shootings. Surely the outrage felt by the female, Black, and Hispanic members of Google's community pales in comparison to the profound grief felt by the families of the victims in these shootings. So why didn't Google just suspend the young author? Or better still, why didn't Google capitalize on this "teachable moment" by convening a company-wide seminar conducted by appropriate experts who could have patiently explained to the author and to any other engineers who agreed with his conclusions why his logic was flawed, hence his conclusions were untenable? 

Google's panicky decision gives the appearance of persecution for holding "politically incorrect" beliefs. This is the sweetest possible fodder for the alt-right's racists and sexists who really do believe that Blacks, Hispanics, and females of any color are inherently inferior to White males. We should expect the alt-right will try to extract maximum benefits from this blunder. Consider the following hypothetical quote:
"Look at how Google treated one of its highly educated White male engineers who asked honest questions about its phony affirmative action programs. He came up with some pretty good answers that were 'politically incorrect', so they fired him. They didn't discuss his answers. They just fired him quick as a wink. Read them for yourself and you'll see what I mean."
  
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P.S. (added Wednesday 8/16/17) -- Now consider the following real quotes from a story in today's Washington Post headlined "Organizers postpone Google protest marches, citing ‘alt-left terrorist’ threats"  
“The Peaceful March on Google has been postponed due to credible Alt Left terrorist threats for the safety of our citizen participants,” organizers wrote on a blog post on the protest’s website ...
...  The rally’s organizer, Jack Posobiec, is an alt-right activist and self-described “reality journalist” who used conspiracy theories to galvanize Trump supporters during the presidential campaign, including the infamous “Pizzagate” rumors of child trafficking ...
 ... The protests were triggered by Google’s firing of engineer James Damore, who wrote a 10-page internal memo criticizing the company’s diversity policies and advocating negative stereotypes about women.